A crowd of at least 100 people — many of them expressing anger — made their way to the Bear Mountain Library in Squaw Valley on Tuesday evening to discuss legislation that aims to change the town’s name.
The meeting was hosted by Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, who said he wanted to give town residents the opportunity to voice their views about the likely name change.
“I recognize that some people in Squaw Valley would like a name change, others don’t want a name change,” said Magsig. “But until we sit down and have a dialogue together, there shouldn’t be a process that moves forward.”
(Editor’s Note: On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2022 requiring the term “squaw” to be removed from all geographic features and place names in California.)
From the start, residents testily debated the meaning and history of the word “squaw.”
At times, the meeting nearly got out of control, but sheriff’s deputies maintained order.
Kenneth Woodrow, the tribal chairperson of the Wuksachi Tribe-Eshom Valley Band, said he felt compelled to show up to explain why the name change is happening but was surprised by the crowd’s level of anger, and even feared going home after the meeting.
“I wasn’t going to get involved, but there’s such negativity,” said Woodrow. “The history they think they know is not true. I tried to explain the history of this area, but they just don’t want to listen.”
He attempted to share some of the word’s history by reading from artifacts and letters he held in his hands — including his family tree.
However, his explanations kept being drowned out by interruptions from upset townsfolk who say they want to keep the name.
Opposed to Name Change
Jocelyn Harper said she is a second-generation resident of Squaw Valley who married into one of the founding families who named the town.
“Renaming or removing the name sterilizes our community’s history and culture, ” said Harper.
Attempts to move the conversation forward on a possible new name were quickly shut down with boos and jeers.
“How can they force us to no longer use the name if we want to continue putting Squaw Valley as our recognized address or put up a sign that says welcome to Squaw Valley on private property,” asked Harper.
Magsig said that residents have a right to do what they please on private property, but the federal and state government have the authority to pass legislation that could change the town name.
Name Change Divides Native Americans
Among the few indigenous individuals at the meeting, not all saw eye-to-eye on “squaw,” and that further fueled claims that the word is not derogatory.
Roseanne Dominguez said she was part Wuksachi, Choinumni, and a descendant of other tribes, and her family has lived in the area for generations.
“I know some people find the name offensive. I know some people find it demeaning,” said Dominguez. “All I can say for those people is, I’m sorry you’ve experienced something negative attached to the word squaw. To my people, to my ancestors. It’s meant woman. That’s all it’s ever meant.”
Can Foothill Town Keep the Squaw Name?
Legislation is in place at the federal and state level, and an announcement on a name change could be announced any day.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names announced the renaming of at least 650 geographic features. Eighty are in California, at least four are in Fresno County, and one is in Tulare County.
The changes announced have been part of a yearlong process initiated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.
As part of the board announcement, seven unincorporated areas across the country, one being Squaw Valley, are under review.
However, regardless of what the federal government decides, Assembly Bill 2022 is on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk and could be signed as soon as Friday, Sept. 23, which is California Indian Day.
If passed, the bill would require that “squaw” be removed as a place name in California and it would take effect in January 2025.
What Name Could Replace Squaw Valley?
In 2020, Roman Rain Tree, a member of the neighboring Dunlap Band of Mono Indians who identifies as Choinumni, started a petition on Change.org to replace the name “Squaw Valley” with “Nuum Valley” which he later changed to “Yokuts Valley.”
Woodrow says that while he recognizes Rain Tree’s efforts to rename the town Yokuts Valley, he thinks the name should go back to the town’s original name referenced by his ancestors: “Bear Valley.”
And some residents said they welcomed that idea, although they preferred “Bear Mountain Valley.”
In fact, several businesses and locations already bear a similar name. For example, Bear Mountain Library, Bear Mountain Road, and Bear Mountain Pizza.
What’s Next for Residents?
Magsig said he would send out mailers at the end of this week seeking input on what the town’s name should be.
“I’m going to take the information I get back from all of you, and I’m going to report it out to the Board of Supervisors on October the 11th,” said Magsig.
Additionally, Magsig mentioned that the Department of Interior had contacted the board two weeks ago with a letter listing the number of places in Fresno County that have already been renamed on federal maps.
He said the department recommended a name change for Squaw Valley, but he wrote back requesting that residents have a hand in the process of picking a new name.
“Are we able to keep the name Squaw Valley at all? I don’t know,” said Magsig.
“But again, it’s important for the residents of this community to communicate clearly what their desire is, and I’m going to communicate that to the governor’s office and communicate that to the president of the United States, as well as the Department of the Interior.”